This first one updated December 2021
This next one updated in October 2022
This first one updated December 2021
This next one updated in October 2022
How do you feel about Earth Day 2023, in Santa Cruz and throughout the USA? The first Earth Day was in 1970 and was organized by Wisconsin’s Senator Gaylord Nelson to be a massive public demonstration to restore the environment. Estimates are that 20 million people took to the streets in protest. They say that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded because of those first Earth Day demonstrations.
Imagine so many people demonstrating because of environmental degradation in the United States! While some things have improved since 1970, we are now facing the greatest threat to the planet ever due to greenhouse gases and climate change. Earth Day in 2023 is tamer, perhaps too tame. What are we going to do to better celebrate Earth Day in 2023?
The best things I find to do on Earth Day in the Monterey Bay area in 2023 are about learning. My favorite educational attractions for Earth Day are being offered in conjunction with Earth Day Santa Cruz. Mainly, I suggest that you check out the free admission to the Museum of Art and History where the main feature is the Bay of Life exhibit. Chris Eckstrom’s and Frans Lanting’s Bay of Life project is very important- a way for more of the Monterey Bay’s people to learn how we live in an epically special place. The photos at the exhibition are more than memorable…they are inspirational, and the project aims to mobilize people, much as Earth Day did at its origin.
For Earth Day 2023, I highly recommend people read the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. The book is full of wisdom about how to live better on this planet. If you are interested in what your find in Ishmael, take the next step and read Derrick Jensen’s Endgame. Both books will point you in the right direction in many ways. A lot of what Derrick Jensen has to say is pretty important.
Environmental education is only valuable if it helps nurture pro-environmental behavior.
In Quinn’s Ishmael, we are asked to reflect on if we are taking too much or just what we need from Earth. I take that another step to ask what we are giving back to Earth. A few of the events I find about Earth Day in the Monterey Bay area in 2023 are about taking less, not giving back to Mother Earth. Some of the events are downright greenwashing or irrelevant. Ecological restoration is the main way I see that we can give back to Earth, but I can’t find a single opportunity to help with ecological restoration associated with Earth Day near Santa Cruz.
I know of five organizations in Santa Cruz that help people give back to Earth. The California Native Plant Society, through its habitat restoration projects. The Coastal Watershed Council through its River Health programs. The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History with its habitat restoration volunteer opportunities. Groundswell Coastal Ecology has The Most Regularly Available opportunities to help restore areas around Santa Cruz. One might consider committing to helping these efforts as a pledge on Earth Day and then following up at one of their next events. Last, Watsonville Wetlands Watch also (rarely) has opportunities to help restore areas in south county.
I know of one event that has brought greenwashing to local Earth Day celebrations. Building new trails is not a pro-environmental behavior, especially when it comes to building those trails at Cotoni Coast Dairies. As I have mentioned in previous essays, that property has not experienced the kind of planning for trails that is necessary to conserve our extraordinary biodiversity, especially that land’s sensitive wildlife species and the species protected through its National Monument status. That hasn’t stopped the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz (aka Santa Cruz Mountain Trail Stewardship) from advertising an Earth Day event that focuses on habitat degradation. At their ‘Dig Day,’ volunteers will be unwittingly paving the way for unnecessarily wildlife disturbing activities. Earth Day volunteers will be helping folks rich enough to afford both a car and the gas to get to that park to bring their mountain bikes to have a ‘rad time’ on trails too narrow to be comfortable for bombing bikers and families going for a walk to use at the same time. To assure mountain bikers rule the trails, BLM has proposed rules that would make it illegal to step off of the narrow trails. It’s a pity that the Bureau of Land Management has had such a special relationship with this group, allowing them so much access to the closed park while turning away ecologists who would help better understand the plants and wildlife that need protection.
This Earth Day let’s renew our dedication to vigilance in protecting our public lands from well-funded special interest groups. In California as elsewhere, there are coalitions of businesses organizing to lobby for “increased access”(read wildlife habitat destruction). Their job is to “streamline regulations and policy affecting the active outdoor industry” (read stop public lands managers from protecting wildlife in favor of outdoor recreation). The clout of the Outdoor Industry Association is affecting politics, apparently trickling down right here on our North Coast.
In closing, I hope you can sort through the Earth Day hype to find something meaningful to do. If you seek educational programs, may your experience lead in in the direction of actions that you can take to not only reduce your footprint on Earth but also to help improve wildlife conservation in and around the Monterey Bay. May we all think about that impactful, original Earth Day and how we might soon mobilize to push for the changes needed to avert the catastrophes of climate change. We are gathering together to make a difference, and our might will be felt in the near future.
-this post slightly edited from the original part of Bruce Bratton’s BrattonOnline.com weekly blog.
I invite you to immerse yourself for a few moments into my dream of the future of Santa Cruz’ North Coast. How will Cotoni Coast Dairies fare in the future, for instance in 2064? During the past year, many things have aligned to allow my dream to be much closer to reality.
Cotoni Coast Dairies’ new manager, Zacchary Ormsby is the first with the skill, knowledge and respect to manage the property according to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) protocol for lands with National Monument and National Conservation Lands status. Zacchary is joined by a freshly hired California Coastal Monument manager, another conservation-oriented biologist, Leisyka Parrot. Congressman Jimmy Pannetta, a skilled veteran of addressing impacts in over-loved and under-stewarded wildlands of Big Sur, has been newly elected to represent Cotoni Coast Dairies’ geography. Jimmy is dedicated to helping address North Coast tourist visitation issues with his important federal government leverage. And Justin Cummings with his doctorate in multi-disciplinary environmental problem solving is newly both the County Supervisor AND the Coastal Commissioner overseeing the park. Meanwhile, many very smart coalitions are poised to work together to assure that Cotoni Coast Dairies is a park for all, well stewarded for wildlife, forever.
It is 2064, the 50th anniversary of Cotoni Coast Dairies becoming public land, and there are national celebrations of this unexpectedly exemplary project. The New York Times has a full color Sunday edition article featuring the park’s success. Cotoni Coast Dairies has become a global destination for accessible, multi-cultural nature tourism. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have enjoyed immersive educational experiences that are the gold standard being copies at other parks around the world. Programs at the park have changed lives of thousands of underrepresented schoolchildren from throughout the Bay Area. Tourists of many nationalities flock to Santa Cruz with this destination in mind. The park’s managers have worked closely with scientists and conservationists, succeeding in restoring the property’s teeming wildlife populations. Visitation is so well managed that many different experiences are available, no matter what ethnicity or language and no matter the financial means. Using cutting edge technology, parks administrators provide the vast array of experiences that visitors report wanting and have developed software to continuously adapt available park experiences accordingly. BLM has received recognition for their sound management through strong public as well as private funding and through the added capacity of dedicated partner organizations and volunteers.
Early on, BLM partnered with local scientists, State and Federal wildlife agencies, and conservation groups with what turned out to be highly successful reintroduction programs for American badger, western burrowing owl, beaver, and tule elk. Volunteers working with conservation groups adapted prior regional wildlife connectivity successes to create Western North America’s first badger preserve by reintroducing ground squirrels, installing drift fences to underpasses along roads to reduce badger fatalities, and creating landscape-scale habitat corridors, and badger populations recovered. Because badgers prefer sandy soils for denning, Cotoni Coast Dairies managers designed large recreation-free buffers around the best denning sites; at first, those buffers were insufficient, but monitoring refined buffer design, and the badgers responded positively with their first young born in 2040. The badger and ground squirrel burrows created habitat that made it possible to later reintroduce burrowing owls which have established several breeding colonies in the huge swaths of restored coastal prairies. These wildlife species have become an important focus for visitation.
Besides reintroduction of these keystone grassland wildlife species, BLM managers embarked on two other processes that turned out to be critical to the restoration of some of California’s last remaining coastal prairies. First, the entire property, including its prairies, became actively cared for by the descendants of the indigenous people who have tended the landscape for thousands of years. The importance of indigenous stewardship was an insight from the outset, including in the name of the property beginning with the tribal name of the first inhabitants, ‘Cotoni.’ In the process of recognizing and revitalizing their culture, native people have directed hundreds of programs attracting thousands of volunteers, school children, and others to collaborate in the large-scale restoration of the land. They reintroduced fire management and tended wildflowers and grasses, carefully relearning the best ways to nurture them to health. The native peoples have revived their internationally renowned basketry, tending plants throughout the park for materials.
At the same time, BLM managers have used cutting-edge, science-based livestock grazing management to restore coastal prairie health. They have collaborated with many other coastal prairie managers, from Humboldt to Santa Barbara, to manage cattle alongside tule elk herds, moving the animals through a matrix of patches of grasslands managed with prescribed fire and reseeding. The prairies draw visitors each spring to view stunning spring wildflower displays unrivaled in the region.
The 2050s were a decade of sea level rise adaptation made possible by the strong North Coast public lands managers partnership facilitated for decades by Santa Cruz City Parks. The first beach and Highway 1 realignment to be redesigned was at Scott Creek Beach, back in the 2030’s. Then, there were successes in restoring Lidell Creek/Bonny Doon Beach and Laguna Creek/Laguna Beach, and then the coalitions managed to redesign all the other North Coast Beaches and highway crossings. Economic development, transportation and conservation interests all converged, and every beach has moved inland of Highway 1. Multi-use bridges accommodate public transport, pedestrian, and bicycle use as well as interpretive and viewing areas which draw the highest numbers of visitors.
The redesigned bridges allowed reintroduction of beavers, which in turn restored fish habitat. Coho salmon and steelhead have been reproducing in all the newly restored streams. After 40 years, BLM wildlife biologists have succeeded in restoring California red-legged frog populations to every beaver pond and lagoon on the North Coast; this is the last place they can be reliably found, the last viable population remaining on Earth. While beachgoing recreation is no longer possible on most North Coast Beaches, the small slivers of sand now support snowy plover nests alongside elephant seal nurseries, drawing wildlife-oriented tourists to high tech, wildlife sensitive viewing opportunities.
Cotoni Coast Dairies has become known for its approachability and accessibility. Visitors are greeted by guides who can communicate in 14 languages; interpretive information on interactive signs is available in an additional 30 languages. Guides are provided state of the art, sustainably constructed family homes attached to visitor interpretation outposts spread throughout the property, allowing 24-7 oversight.
Visitor experiences at Cotoni Coast Dairies vary with time in response to ongoing surveys of existing and potential users. While it has become necessary to limit use, a universally available reservation system assures fair distribution of tickets. Free transportation into the park is available from nearby public transit hubs. The reservation system allows park managers to adjust amount and types of use, including segregating users within the park, to accommodate visitor expectations and reduce use conflict. Families feel safe walking small children or elderly family members on tranquil trails while thrill seeking bicycle riders enjoy uncrowded downhill forays without worrying about others’ safety. If you don’t mind more crowded conditions, you won’t be surprised by what you experience. But, if you want more solitude or better wildlife viewing opportunities, parks managers have specific days, trails and destinations just for you.
One of the most popular reservation requests is for guided nighttime wildlife viewing. For this opportunity, small groups are guided into one of 10 remote viewing locations designed to minimize wildlife impacts while maximizing the opportunity to view nighttime wildlife using the latest night vision technology. Visitors enjoy these immersive experiences, with interpretation and storytelling by expert volunteer naturalists.
Digital communication has allowed active feedback about visitors’ experiences to parks managers, and data feeds into the network of universities participating in the studies and assisting with adaptive management. Management response to real time social carrying capacity analysis has become second nature to Cotoni Coast Dairies users and the vastly superior visitor use experience has resulted in a high demand for updating other park system management protocol.
What I describe above is truly attainable if we want it bad enough and are willing to act. The key element of success is public will which is necessary to raise our capacity to succeed. We’ll need leadership, volunteers, capital, technology, and kindness. And, we need to have a common vision: I hope I began that by communicating something we can work together to hone and then aspire to. If you like this vision, let BLM, Jimmy Panetta, and Justin Cummings know by clicking those links and writing a short note referencing this essay.
-this post originally posted via Bruce Bratton on his vastly illuminating weekly blog at BrattonOnline.com: subscribe now and SAVE!
Someone new on the scene recently asked me to explain the history of what went wrong at Cotoni Coast Dairies. After many, many years, the property still isn’t being managed for wildlife or public safety, and it still isn’t open to the public. As a prelude to this, I urge readers to read my essay on how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) came to manage the property in the first place…a curious story, indeed. This essay compliments that prior essay with more details, especially since BLM took over managing the property. Soon, I’ll be writing the third in this series with suggestions about what is needed to improve this unfortunate situation.
Since its purchase for conservation, Cotoni Coast Dairies has a history of very little stewardship and management. Trust for Public Land purchased the property in 1998 and held it until 2014. During that time, managers working for the Trust for Public Land did almost nothing to maintain the property. Occasionally, someone would show up to clear some anticipated future trail. For instance, TPL contractors extensively cleared riparian vegetation along Liddell Creek, chainsawing decades-old willow trees that shaded endangered fish habitat and provided cover for the endangered California red-legged frog. They argued that the clearance was along an ‘existing road,’ and they started putting this trail on early maps as a favored future public access point. (The trail later appeared on BLM’s maps, but federal wildlife protection agency personnel demanded otherwise, so the trail disappeared from plans.) Otherwise, TPL let fences, gates, and culverts rust away, roads and trails erode, weeds spread, and fuels build up creating hazardous conditions for future wildfires.
Eight years ago, BLM took over management of Cotoni Coast Dairies, and those same patterns largely continued. Early on, BLM staff constructed a new trail, carving through nests of state-listed sensitive wildlife without required State consultation. Like TPL, BLM staff have either overlooked erosion issues along roads or graded long abandoned ‘existing roads’ (aka ‘future trails’) with uncannily similar detrimental impacts to rare fish and amphibians. Meanwhile, terrible weeds and immense wildfire risks continued to spread across the property. The reason BLM staff have given for such poor stewardship: ‘we don’t have an approved plan.’ That changed, but management hasn’t…except for one new stretch of cattle fence and subset of future trails being created mainly by volunteers. The trails and fence came before any work on invasive species or wildfire mitigation, so we sadly sense BLM staff priorities have been directed away from conservation towards recreational access.
Staff from both TPL and BLM have sporadically spent a bit of time working on poor planning processes or participating in largely perfunctory public meetings about property management at Cotoni Coast Dairies. In the year 2000, TPL convened and facilitated a Community Advisory Group (CAG) to advise on guidelines meant to be used by future managers. A few of us on the CAG were asked to provide feedback about the biological portion of those guidelines, but we were unable to improve the largely cursory and incomplete biological assessments used to guide future property management. It is unclear if those guidelines have ever been used by BLM, or if TPL even cares.
BLM has done little to inventory the property, so it has very poor information with which to plan its management. Like TPL, BLM staff have shunned offers to improve biological survey data and so, as with the TPL plans, BLM’s plans have overlooked species and ecosystems that are easily identified and/or previously catalogued by reputable sources. This alienates the conservation community including the wealth of well-trained scientists that this region enjoys.
Instead of the long series of TPL’s CAG meetings, BLM staff showed up for a single community-engagement-style meeting convened and facilitated by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. That meeting surprisingly and very oddly focused on weighing pros and cons of parking lot locations, but it was never clear why public input was sought or what became of it afterwards. In the midst of this, an outside funder parachuted in hundreds of thousands of dollars so that several local organizations could mount a seemingly ‘grassroots’ Monument Campaign.
In 2015, The Sempervirens Fund led the “Monument Campaign,” a fast-paced, highly scripted, well-funded effort to organize rallies and letter writing to show public support for National Monument designation of Cotoni Coast Dairies. In what is increasingly common “fake news,” the bulk of the Monument Campaign messaging was about opening the property for public use, while in fact Monument designation is more about improving conservation of the property…which would typically increase limitations on public access. This nonsense was compounded by campaign organizers’ refusal to address how designation would increase deed restriction protections already in place from TPL. Furthermore, organizers dismissed concerns about managing the anticipated influx of visitors drawn to something called a National Monument. How important the Monument Campaign was in Obama’s designation is unclear, but the divisions in the community were deep and lasting. Organizers were successful in coalescing well-meaning but very poorly informed people whose nonsensical byline was “Monument designation means my family will be able to visit!” On the other hand, there was a surprisingly politically diverse coalition equipped with well-informed questions and concerns that were never addressed. After that local experience, it is difficult for me to believe that any political faction is immune from using scripted ‘truthiness,’ hype, or even lies when they feel those tools necessary in attracting popular support for secret agendas. Unsurprisingly, leaders of the ephemeral Monument Campaign movement have since disappeared from involvement, leaving the aftermath for the real, long-term grassroots organizations to deal with, and we have yet to experience any conservation benefit of Monument designation.
As the Monument Campaign launched in 2015, BLM issued a proposal for the property’s first public access trail, aka the “Laguna Trail,” in an expedited environmental review process that showed our community how poorly equipped BLM staff were to adequately plan for the property. BLM staff relied on old, insufficient biological inventories for their analysis, failed to survey for endangered species, and did not include any analysis of how the trail would address social equity concerns in providing for visitor use. BLM staff did not respond to the many concerns raised by the public but instead completed their pro-forma circulation and approval of planning documents and rapidly deployed machinery and workers to clear the trail. Trail construction proceeded without conforming to even the nominal environmental guidelines outlined in BLM’s planning documents. The hastily constructed trail cut through state-protected wildlife habitat, degraded historical artifacts, and came very close to a native village site which BLM failed to plan for protecting. In addition, if the project had proceeded, BLM would have opened a trail beginning at Laguna Creek Road and Highway 1 without any new parking, litter, or bathroom facilities, without sufficient staffing for enforcement or interpretation, and without a recreational plan for the property as a whole to analyze how to best protect wildlife while providing public access. This pop up trail was BLM’s way of introducing themselves to the land and to our community.
As the first federal land manager in the County, it was BLM staff who introduced our community to the federal government’s environmental planning process. This introduction was surprising in many ways. We had been accustomed to public lands managers paying careful attention to protecting “environmentally sensitive habitat areas” (ESHA) according to Coastal Commission rules. Not so with this property – BLM staff didn’t even provide the public maps of those regulated habitat areas in any of their planning documents! With the promise of National Monument protections, we were hopeful that BLM staff would follow the required and highly regimented process outlined in BLM’s policy “Manual 6220,” which provides staff with guidelines on how to manage national monuments. Again, not so! In fact, BLM staff have not used the 6220 manual and have neglected any public acknowledgement of the manual, as if they do not intend to use it, at all. Moreover, BLM staff have never specifically acknowledged the many species and ecosystems protected through the monument designation process. Monument management protocol seems irrelevant to BLM staff, who are apparently bent on expediting the public access so vocally anticipated by the Monument Campaign (coincidence?).
BLM staff have chosen expediency over thoroughness in each of their property planning exercises. For their most recent property-wide plan, instead of data-based predictions of visitor use, BLM staff chose a largely arbitrary low-ball figure of 250,000 anticipated visitors/year for the property. Instead of the logical in-depth alternatives analysis of a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), BLM staff have chosen expedited Environmental Analysis (EA) processes, complete with incredible conclusions of ‘Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI),’ despite significant contrary expert testimony that has gone unaddressed and unacknowledged. As we learned for the first time about its ‘federal consistency process,’ the Coastal Commission recently mandated that BLM use a phased approach to opening the property to public use. The Coastal Commission required that only if/when the BLM proved it could adequately manage public use could it open the full range of parking lots and trails; that proof requires monitoring and such monitoring would normally require a baseline inventory of sensitive natural resources, but we have yet to see that happen…we don’t even know the language to which the BLM and the Coastal Commission have agreed.
My personal interactions with BLM staff have historically been less than pleasant, perhaps because those staff members are unused to much public engagement. My experience of poor interactions with BLM staff isn’t isolated. Someone suggested that this might be partly because those staff feel ‘rocked back on their heels’ because of criticism of their work, which is odd because our comments have been professional, polite, and part of what BLM should expect as public lands planning processes. A BLM staffer told me long ago that their colleagues were in for a surprise as they encountered the very actively involved communities of Santa Cruz County’s North Coast. Previously, most BLM staff working at Cotoni Coast Dairies had worked very much out of the public eye, in remote parts of California with little/no public oversight.
While we can’t ascertain why BLM staff have avoided offers for assistance, their subterfuge is as enlightening as it has been damaging. My compassion about staff feeling rocked back on their heels is limited because BLM staff have sought to discredit my work and harm my reputation, even approaching employers with false information to negatively affect my job while also giving ultimatums to conservation networks to preclude my participation. During one encounter at a public meeting, a BLM staff person told me that they would never collaborate with me or the groups with whom I worked because I was “against any public access at Cotoni Coast Dairies.” That was an incorrect statement about my position that I had likewise been hearing from a particularly activist, radical group of mountain bikers. As this BLM staff person echoed that quote, it was possible to better understand communication channels and allegiances.
My earliest interactions with BLM staff at Cotoni Coast Dairies were when I proposed assistance for biological monitoring. I and a few other biologists offered BLM free assistance with biological surveys to improve their understanding of the property. After that proposal, over a very long time, a BLM staff person strung us along through an incorrect informal process without ever encouraging us or acknowledging the potential value of such work. There was a chain of calls and emails that each ended with something like ‘well, maybe….’ By the time we subsequently discovered the correct application process and applied in that way, leadership had changed and the application was then officially refused.
It is important to view BLM’s problems in the context of issues related to visitor access on conservation lands throughout Santa Cruz County. As with all of the other public lands managers, BLM has been planning for visitor use and conservation in a vacuum, as if the surrounding lands don’t exist: this is a deeply flawed perspective. Much of the land from Santa Cruz City to the County line is heavily used by recreational visitors. Most weekends, parking lots overflow with cars and parked cars dangerously line the highway. There are too few trash cans and toilets to serve those visitors. Police and emergency responders are stretched to respond to the many accidents such visitation is bound to create.
County Parks, State Parks, the City of Santa Cruz, the Rail Trail, and BLM each have their own properties to manage and the same 4 T’s issues to address, but they aren’t doing it collaboratively. It is clear that none of those agencies has the resources to address those issues and so those issues are borne by our community. Visitors have come to expect trashy beaches. Emergency responders have come to expect exhaustion and insufficient support. Visitors with elderly family members or small children are avoiding parks due to dangerous or disgusting conditions. As each agency plans in isolation to provide for the maximum number of visitors, parks managers are dooming wildlife and visitor experience – the carrying capacity for the entire North Coast will be surpassed. It is no wonder that our community does not trust BLM to be able to manage their land and the visitors that they plan on attracting. BLM entered an arena of mistrust and fueled the fire with their own mistakes.
Those of you who know me well know I don’t like the passive tense: I like clearly stating the subjects of verbs…who (specifically) is responsible for doing what (specifically). And yet, agencies like BLM are opaque…staff even refuse to specify who is specifically responsible for anything you might witness happening. But, placing the entire blame of the tragedy of Cotoni Coast Dairies on current BLM staff is unfair. Local, state and federal elected officials also bear some responsibility; good intel is that some of them have even winked behind closed doors in Washington DC, saying that local concerns needn’t be addressed. But again, placing a large amount of blame on elected officials also doesn’t seem fair: after all, they should be swayed by popular opinion (or at least election).
We saw how enough funding swayed popular opinion with the Monument Campaign, right? Apparently, no funders have been inspired to sway popular opinion in favor of wildlife protection on conservation lands in this particularly biodiverse region. Even if they did, there is a dearth of organizations who would lead that campaign. And so, in regard to the tragedies unfolding at Cotoni Coast Dairies and across Santa Cruz County’s North Coast, we must bear the brunt of blame within our community, which has long lacked leadership, energy, and focus on environmental conservation. For more on that, read my essay “Democracy and the Environment.” And, stay tuned for the third in this series of essays where I will outline steps forward out of this unfortunate predicament.
-this article adapted and updated from what appeared in late March at Bruce Bratton’s blog BrattonOnline.com